After striking, Phoenix bus drivers vow to continue their “fight for workers’ rights”

Bus drivers and Veolia Transportation late last week settled a week-long strike in Phoenix and neighboring Tempe, Arizona, but acrimony remains between the company and its workers, and the drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433, has vowed to block company efforts to renew bus service contracts with the two cities, one of which goes up for bid this summer.

The strike is the latest round in an ongoing fight between Veolia, a multinational corporation based in France, and its unionized workforce. The drivers have been negotiating for a new contract for nearly two years, and the company in October 2010 locked out for 11 days 60 vehicle cleaning and maintenance workers who belong to the Teamsters. The Teamsters charged that the company planned to use the lockout to bust its unions, which in addition to the Teamsters and ATU includes the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents mechanics.

“This is the worst … company I have ever dealt with,” said Michael Cornelius, Local 1433’s financial secretary/treasurer to the Tucson Citizen.  “We’ve negotiated with two other (bus-service) companies this year and had no problems getting a new contract. That should say something about Veolia.”

Veolia operates 50 of the 101 bus routes in the combined Valley Metro region that includes Phoenix and Tempe. The company has contracts with the two cities to provide transportation services. The Tempe contract expires in 2013, the Phoenix contract in 2015.

The 20-month negotiations that led up to the week-long strike were rancorous. During the negotiations, both sides filed unfair labor practices against each other. The National Labor Relations Board dismissed Veolia’s charges, but found evidence that Veolia was negotiating in bad faith to prevent resolution of contract issues. As a result, Veolia is scheduled to appear before an administrative law judge on April 3 to answer charges of unfair labor practices.

During its negotiations with its drivers, Veolia in the fall of 2010 locked out its cleaning and maintenance workers. According to the Teamsters, members of Local 104 showed up for work early one Monday morning in October 2010 at the Valley Metro Transit Authority bus barn only to be escorted off company property by Veolia security personnel.

The Teamsters had been negotiating a new contract with the company and members agreed to a contract extension to keep bus service operational instead of striking. The company chose to lock them out instead. The lockout lasted 11 days. After the lockout ended, the company agreed to continue bargaining. The two sides reached a settlement that included reimbursing the workers for wages lost during the 11-day lockout.

According to the Teamsters, the company threatened workers with outsourcing their jobs if they didn’t accept a new contract based on Veolia’s terms. The Teamsters also said that the company wanted to force a strike in hopes that the drivers would carry out their pledge not to cross the Teamsters’ picket line, which would give the company an excuse to hire replacement workers and bust both unions.

The company appears to have used the drivers’ strike as leverage to extract concessions from the City of Phoenix regarding its contract with Veolia. The contract calls for the company to pay liquidated damages if it fails to meet timeliness standards. During a three-month period July and September 2011, Veolia incurred liquidated damages totalling $380,000.

The Phoenix New Times reports that shortly before the strike ended, the Phoenix City Council voted to restructure the contract and return a total of $2.5 million in liquidated damages already collected and to bolster the drivers’ pension fund by $13.5 million.

According to the drivers, their new contract with Veolia leaves much to be desired. “We’ve been fighting to keep what we have,” Cornelius said to the Tucson Citizen. “Wages were never our issue. It’s a fair contract, but it’s not great.”

Dwayne Hardy, a driver with 12 years experience, told the Citizen that the new contract requires drivers to pay $1,180 a month for dependent health care coverage, an amount he can’t afford even though he is among the highest paid drivers.

When the strike was settled, the union on its website told members, to report to work but added that, “We will continue waging this fight for workers’ rights against foreign corporations.”

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